What Is Parkinson's Law and How to Overcome It?

The same can be good for an official and bad for a designer, programmer and copywriter. How can we follow the law without making it worse?
Time management techniques tend to require you to have margins in your schedule.
Does the report take you 45 minutes? Allocate an hour for it. Does the report take you four days? Allocate a week for this work. Such time banks protect you against unpleasant surprises and help you get the task done in time.

Ironically, this quite reasonable approach is the common cause of low productivity. In this article, we explain what Parkinson’s Law is and how it affects our time management.

1. What is the point of Parkinson’s law?

Parkinson’s Law is a satirical rule that states:
The work fills its allotted time span
Simply put, it takes us as much time to complete a task as we allocate for it.

Example 1. It takes a person half an hour to clean his apartment every day. This is enough time for him to keep the apartment tidy. However, if he allocates an hour for cleaning, it is highly likely that this is how long cleaning will take this time.

Example 2. A department has two managers who are struggle to cope with their duties. To make their lives easier, the company hires two more people for the department. Theoretically, the workload of each employee should be halved. In fact, it doesn’t happen: managers are still busy all day long.
The author of the law was the British historian and writer Cyril Northcote Parkinson. In 1955, he published a satirical pamphlet against bureaucracy in The Economist. According to Parkinson, this law ("work complicates to fill the available time") leads to the continuous growth of bureaucracy.

The article soon became popular all over the world. The rule stated in it has since been called "Parkinson's law" or "Parkinson's first law". The author of the article later wrote a book on this topic, in which he also described other laws of development of modern organizations.

2. How does the law work in time management and why do we "follow" it?

Parkinson’s Law is relevant not only for organizations, but also for personal time management. Here are some typical situations in which it can be encountered:

  • Schedule. The more time is allotted to a task, the longer it takes to complete it. Let’s assume that a manager needs an hour to write a report. If he or she allocates two hours for this task, it will probably take them that long to complete the task. The time margin allows us to get distracted, work slowly and fall into perfectionism.

  • Deadline. The more time before the deadline, the slower the work on the project goes. A typical example: if a freelancer has a week to complete a task, he or she will engage in it actively only on the day before the deadline.

  • Workday. The workday will always be busy, no matter how long it is.

It may seem that people "comply" with Parkinson’s Law intentionally. But it isn’t: the law is based on two very insidious traps of thinking.

❌ Trap 1. "Timing is good"

The point of the trap is that people tend to evaluate their own and others' work through time spent on it. For example:

  • Were you working for ten hours? Good for you!
  • Were you working for six hours? Not so good.
  • Were you working for only two hours? Not good at all.

The more time we spend on a task, the more "serious" and significant it seems. For example, if a mechanic spends five hours repairing a car and demands 50 USD for his work, we will gladly pay it. But if he completes the work in a minute and asks for the same amount of money, we’ll involuntarily start to resent him.

❌ Trap 2. "Punishment by work"

What will happen if we complete a task ahead of schedule? What reward will we get for it?

The correct answer is none. Instead of a reward, there will be a "punishment" of the next batch of tasks. This effect is especially significant in commercial and government organizations, where productivity is usually "rewarded" with a new assignment or new responsibilities.

These traps combined lead to an involuntary urge to procrastinate. So why should you rush? As long as you work, you are doing great (trap 1). If you finish earlier, you’ll immediately start a new task (trap 2).

In general, Parkinson’s Law has a negative impact on our lives.

First, we work unreasonably slowly. As a result, we fail to achieve the results we could potentially achieve.

Second, work remains work. As it grows, it takes time intended for rest, leisure and family.

3. How to overcome Parkinson’s Law?

The good news is that we can, if not "defeat" Parkinson’s Law, at least reduce its negative effect. However, to do so, we have to radically change our approach to time management. Here are some recommendations:

1. Give yourself rewards for being productive rather than punishments

When you complete a task, a series of tasks or a significant piece of work ahead of schedule, don’t start on the next task right away. Take at least a short break: go for a walk, have a coffee, or do something else you enjoy.

If you have completely fulfilled the plan for the day, don’t set new tasks, but stop working. A well-deserved rest at the end of the day is one of the strongest sources of motivation for a person.

This strategy changes your attitude towards work. You gradually lose the desire to procrastinate, and you become eager to get things done faster.

2. Focus on results, not time span

Let’s assume you are writing a book or a term thesis. Daily work on the text can be scheduled in two ways:

  • Based on time span ("Write a book — 2 hours").
  • Based on the result ("Write 500 words").

The first method of planning makes you tempted to imitate your work in every possible way. And this is natural: if you write only two sentences in the allotted two hours, technically the task will be considered completed.

The second method of planning doesn’t create such temptations: until the goal is achieved, you have no right to check off the task. It doesn’t matter whether the work takes 2 hours or 15 minutes.

Such result-oriented statements can be picked up for most tasks. Let’s compare:

3. Limit infinite tasks

The task "go shopping" is considered completed when you have bought all the necessary items. But taking a walk, reading a book or learning a foreign language can go on indefinitely: these tasks have no natural end.

To prevent such tasks from prolonging, it can be helpful to set a time budget for them right away. The budget can be specified directly in the statements:

4. Reduce the time you spend on tasks

This is not at all a rule, but just a technique that can be very useful sometimes.

Let’s assume that it usually takes you 30 minutes to complete a task. Now, allocate 25 minutes and try to finish it in time (you can use a timer).

Firstly, it stimulates you to work a little faster. Secondly, this way you can check your work for Parkinson’s law and understand whether this task was performed rationally before.

5. Set interim deadlines

When you are working on a project or major task, set deadlines for each significant step. This technique keeps you consistent and prevents you from procrastinating on your project.

Let’s say you have a week to write an article. This is roughly what the work plan lookы like in the electronic planner:

6. Reserve time for rest

As "the work fills its allotted time span", it easily takes up your rest time. To prevent this from happening, add blocks of rest to your schedule in advance. They can be scheduled just like regular tasks:
It is also very helpful to set once and for all an "hour X", after this hour you will immediately stop working. It will become a kind of "fuse" that will help you avoid overwork.

And one more tip: to overcome Parkinson’s law more effectively, try scheduling your tasks not on paper, but in electronic planners. Modern programs, such as SingularityApp, allow you to set strict time limits for any work. You will be able to record its start time and deadline, rigidly schedule individual steps and add reminders to them.

All this will help to have maximum control over the progress of the work and avoid unnecessary loss of time.
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